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Sephora’s plan to combat racial bias: Fewer security guards, more Black-owned brands and new protocols

Retail and crisis management experts say the initiative provides a comprehensive — and necessary — road map for the industry

Sephora is adopting new training, marketing and merchandising protocols to reduce the potential for racial bias in its stores. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

International makeup chain Sephora is implementing sweeping changes in its merchandising, marketing and employee training practices in one of the most public efforts by a major retailer to mitigate the potential for racial profiling and other discriminatory practices at its stores.

The initiative announced Wednesday is the culmination of customer and employee surveys, interviews and academic research that have been underway since 2019. But issues around race and inequality took on new urgency following the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the police killing of George Floyd in May, executives said. The chain also has faced backlash from Black shoppers, including the rapper SZA and comedian Leslie Jones, who have spoken publicly about unfair treatment by its employees.

“We recognize that racial bias affects our stores, just as it affects all retailers,” Deborah Yeh, the company’s chief marketing officer, said in an interview. “Discrimination and unfair treatment are woven into institutions across America, and retail is not excepted.”

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Among the changes, Sephora is pledging to double its assortment of Black-owned brands, to 16, by year’s end and create programs to help entrepreneurs of color. It also will enact new customer-greeting protocols to ensure shoppers are treated consistently, as well as reduce the presence of third-party security guards and police officers in its 500 U.S. stores.

Racism in retail, academics say, has become a persistent problem in an industry that relies heavily on personal interaction. More Black Americans — 24 percent — said they had been treated unfairly in a store within a 30-day period than at work, restaurants, bars, health-care settings or in police interactions, according to a Gallup poll conducted last summer.

“This has been a problem for many, many years because, let’s face it, individuals bring their own biases to work,” said Jerome Williams, a business professor at Rutgers University and co-author of “Race and Retail: Consumption Across the Color Line.” “To make progress, there are two areas that are critical: employee training and a strong commitment by upper management to treat all customers fairly, without making assumptions.”

Sephora is among a growing number of companies looking for ways to promote diversity and inclusion within their ranks. Apple on Wednesday kicked off a $100 million initiative to combat racial discrimination. The tech giant is pouring $25 million into the Propel Center, an education campus in Atlanta aimed at training business leaders from diverse backgrounds, and is creating a developer academy in Detroit, where it expects to train close to 1,000 students a year in software development for its mobile operating system.

“We are all accountable to the urgent work of building a more just, more equitable world — and these new projects send a clear signal of Apple’s enduring commitment,” chief executive Tim Cook said in a news release.

Sephora’s plan, retail and crisis management experts said, provides a comprehensive — and necessary — road map for the industry: Black shoppers typically spend more on skin care, fragrances and hair care than their White counterparts, amounting to more than $1 billion each year, according to Nielsen.

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Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line, for example, has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars and waves of Black shoppers since it debuted at Sephora in 2017. The brand known for inclusivity and makeup that fits a broad range of skin tones generated an estimated $570 million in revenue in 2018, according to Forbes, which values the company at $3 billion. Fenty Beauty is co-owned by Sephora’s parent company, the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

Sephora surveyed about 3,000 shoppers and 1,700 employees at its stores and others across the country. Among its findings were that Black shoppers routinely felt sized up and discriminated against for their skin color and ethnicity. Some reported being subject to additional surveillance while browsing or being told they “could not afford an expensive item.” Shoppers of color also felt they had to wait longer than their White counterparts to get help from employees.

Some Black and other shoppers of color told researchers they’ve changed their habits as a result, including by buying online, avoiding in-store samples, keeping their hands out of their pockets while browsing and carrying designer handbags to “avoid assumptions they can’t afford to shop there or will steal.”

As a result, the company has created new employee training programs to ensure all shoppers are greeted promptly and consistently. The company is enacting a zero-tolerance policy — meaning immediate termination — for profiling, discrimination, harassment and retaliation by employees. Annual performance reviews will include new inclusivity-based metrics, and the company is phasing out third-party security guards in favor of in-house employees who have been trained in the company’s new policies.

“The goal is to provide more consistent experiences for all shoppers and to minimize concerns regarding store policing,” said George-Axelle Broussillon Matschinga, the company’s vice president of diversity and inclusion.

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The efforts come two years after Solána Imani Rowe, the rapper known as SZA, tweeted about an employee at a Sephora store in California who called security to make sure the performer wasn’t stealing. Jones, a former cast member and writer on “Saturday Night Live,” later tweeted about an incident in which she said her makeup artist had been mistreated by store employees. “NO MORE SEPHORA,” she wrote.

Executives said those incidents reinforced the need for more inclusive protocols. They later closed U.S. stores to have employees undergo an hour-long training session on diversity and inclusion. The company took similar action last summer, following Floyd’s killing, and said such efforts will be ongoing and regular. It also pledged to devote at least 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned brands, although executives did not say how soon they would do so. (The retailer currently carries eight Black-owned brands, which is less than 3 percent of its portfolio of about 290 brands.)

In the coming months, though, executives say they plan to take more deliberate action to make shoppers of color feel welcome in their stores. Sephora is rethinking its advertising and social media marketing to include people of more diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and identities. Products by Black-owned brands will be featured prominently in stores and online, in contrast with chains that typically keep such items in separate aisles or locked away.

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Sephora also is changing how it solicits feedback, so that it can track the experiences of all shoppers, not just those who make a purchase. Most patrons do not report negative experiences, Yeh said, making it difficult for retailers to monitor for discrimination. Instead of post-checkout surveys on receipts or by email, the company will position employees at store exits to check in with shoppers as they are leaving. It expects to combine those results with feedback collected through call centers and social media.

The retailer also plans to share statistics on employee diversity twice a year on

“Retail is an industry that is obsessed with data, and this is a case where obsession with data could be good for everybody,” Yeh said, adding that the company is sharing its findings broadly because it hopes to encourage others in the industry to take similar action. “[Our study] may not paint the most favorable picture of the retail industry, but we are being open because one retailer cannot fix this problem. We want our colleagues and partners to join us.”

Reed Albergotti contributed to this report.